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Glamping and saving the turtle eggs in Libaran Island, Sabah

Relaxing view on Libaran Island

Glamping is a new way of experiencing nature but comfortable enough for you to feel safe, secure and dare I say, glamourous! Yes glamping is the combination of the words “glamourous” and “camping”. In Sabah there are only a handful destinations that offer glamping but the one that I went to was the best as it combines nature conservation specifically the sea turtles.

Read on as I share my experience to Walai Penyu Resort in Libaran Island, Sandakan.

About Libaran Island

Scenic during sunset at Libaran Island

With a population of 450 people, Libaran is an island of about 2 sq km located 45 minutes away by boat from Sandakan, Sabah Borneo second largest city. Although this island is only 5 minutes away from the famous Turtle Islands park (Selingan Island), regrettably it is not gazetted to be protected under the state’s park laws.

This is devastating for any turtles that lands on the wrong island, and this could end their life cycle when villagers collect their eggs. Fortunately, their fate has got a lot better thanks to Mr. Alex Yee, an entrepreneurial conservative who started the Walai Penyu Conservation Park with a win – win model for locals and turtles.

Importance of Turtles

Turtle sighting is always a delightful experience especially when you are scuba diving. Swimming next to them is heavenly. Do you know that turtles are also known as the Guardian of the Coral Triangle because they maintain the health of marine ecosystems. Our tourism and environment will do well if the turtles are safe.

Malaysia is home to 4 species of turtles; they are, Leatherback, Green, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles. Unfortunately they all are endangered due to pollution and poaching.

So when the invite came from Alex to spend a night on Libaran Island and be closer to these gentle creatures, I couldn’t pass it up.

The Trip to Libaran Island

Our boat left for Libaran Island from the Sabah Parks jetty on a hot afternoon. Boat transfer is provided by Walai Penyu Resort. Walai Penyu literally means “House for the turtles” in the local language.

We safely reached Libaran Island after 45 minutes. It’s a densely vegetated island without any high ground or tall building. For sure with little human prints on nature it attracts the turtles to come and nest their eggs here. Too much noise and artificial light will turn the mother turtle away.

As the waters was only knee-deep, the boat weaved its way slowly in-between the lush corals to reach land. The resort’s staff were already waiting for us with wheelbarrow as we touched land. They helped transporting our bags to the Walai Penyu Resort.

We are apparently not the only visitors there. Tracks and traces of turtle landing can be seen as they left their marks on the sands. We found nesting sites under shrubs, beach and camp.

Glamping at Walai Penyu Resort

We proceeded to check-in to our “room”. Actually they are glamping tents, which is larger than standard camp but spacious enough to fit in two beds and a desk. The camp is very clean and located on the beach.

Glamping is becoming a trend for travellers who love to be close to nature but stay comfortable with adequate setup. I have done camping many times, glamping is new to me, and it definitely offers a more family-friendly and enjoyable stay than camping.

In an effort to keep the site as natural as possible, there are only 8 dome-shaped tents in Walai Penyu Resort that can host up to 16 guests daily. Lighting is also kept to minimum.

As our tents are literally located in front of the beach, we unzipped the side opening to allow the gentle sea breeze come into our tents. Refreshing! The tents also has mosquito nets to protect you from this unwanted visitors from coming in.

The communal washroom have lot of open spaces that allow good ventilation, so the place is dry, clean with refreshing air.

Beautiful Libaran

Turtles usually nests after dusk. As it was still early, I took the chance to explore the island and strolled around. If you have proper shoes and have a lot of time to spare, you can walk around the island which has a distance of 6.5KM.

Near our glamping site is a few patches of lush mangrove trees. Alex told us that at night we could see fireflies there. The entangled roots of these aged mangrove trees creates nature patterns just like bonsai trees. They look so fascinating.

Due to low tide, the water was very shallow and tempting, so we walked in the sea water to feel the soft sand and warm water running through our toes.

Less than 2 KM away is Racket Island, where you can find the “tomb” of turtles. You can walk to that island during low tide. But do return before high tide or you have to swim back to Libaran.

The beach is long and litter-free. There is a reason for the cleanliness though. Alex hires the villagers to clean them up. This is also another way of stopping the villagers from taking the turtle eggs and selling them, by providing an alternative source of income.

Getting the beach cleaned is not solely meant for the tourists though as they are beneficial for the turtles too. Without any debris blocking their way up to the beach, the mother turtle will find it easier to go up on the sand and find their nesting spot.

All of the rubbish collected are then sent back to the mainland for proper disposal. Alex wanted to show to the visitors of the resort how indiscriminate dumping of rubbish has got serious so he thought of something. He created something out of all the plastic bottles that he bought from the cleaners.

It’s a 300sq feet plastic house built from 3,500 plastic bottles. The house proved the fact that Malaysia is the 8th largest producer of mismanaged plastic wastes. 

The sea view was amazing. Soon it was dusk and the clouds turned to golden red. It’s the famous flaming sunset of Sabah. We were trying to find the best spot to take photos of the sunset view and ended up at a fishing village on other end of the island. The friendly villagers smiled at us as they observe our antics. This is just an ordinary fishing village but it was surreal and peaceful under the gold sunset.

Inspiring Success Story

When we got back to the resort, delicious dinner was already served under a canopy. Alex shared his journey in his conservation work on Libaran Island as we enjoyed our dinner. It was not all smooth sailing for him. If I were in his shoes, I’d have given up long time ago. 

Turtles have existed for million of years, but if humans decide not to do anything, they can go extinct in a little as 10 years. Turtles are fully protected by wildlife act but only in Sabah and Sarawak. In the other Malaysian states, it is legal to consume them so they are sold openly.

However, without any serious and hard enforcement especially on a remote island such as Libaran, the locals has no qualms eating the turtle eggs. I don’t place the blame entirely on them though.  Turtle eggs have been the main source of protein for the islanders since who knows when. Now in the name of conservation, we have to take their legacy away, so obviously they are not happy.

Other than stop consuming turtle eggs, we must stop harassing the turtles too. Painful lessons can be learnt from Rantau Abang beach in Terengganu, a coastal state in Peninsular Malaysia. 60 years ago there were more than 10,000 nesting spots. However humans in the form of tourists rode on their back and even flip them over for fun. Now the latest report states that there are zero sightings in the last 5 years!

Taking a cue from Rantau Abang, Sabah Wildlife Department sought collaboration with Alex in 2011 to protect the turtles on Libaran because the villagers collecting turtle eggs. Alex was given a hot potato instead of a  cash cow. Even the former village head didn’t support his conservation work and even tried to stop his team from collecting turtle eggs for protection.

Deeply dismayed by many challenges and people issues, Alex thought about quitting in Nov 2015. He visited Libaran in Feb 2016 to say goodbye to the island. Probably the turtles sensed of what was happening sent a signal to him by nesting 70 eggs in fronf of his tent that night.

Alex caught on the signal and decided to continue with his efforts. He persevered until he established Libaran as the latest turtle stronghold for Sabah. It was a victory for the state of Sabah and of course for the turtle as well.

Do you know that during World War II, a few British prisoners of war escaped the infamous Death March and one ended up hiding on Libaran Island until he was rescued by the US Navy after the war. Many years later, his son visited Libaran and met the son of the man who rescued his father. He happens to be working for Alex.

Before we retired for the night, Alex said, “It will be high tide tonight so we have good chance to see turtle landing.” And he was right.

Turtle Landing

The sounds of the crashing  waves combined with the sea breeze helped me sleep easily that night until I was woken by the sound of a man talking outside my tent. It was Alex with his walkie-talkie. I looked at the time and it was 3:20am.

I got up and joined him outside. From his serious expression, I knew a turtle has landed. I followed behind him with a torchlight.

That night we saw a Hawksbill turtle laying eggs under a tree about 200 metres away from our camp. We were so happy but we had to contain our excitement and quietly observe the beautiful and natural event happening from a distance. If distracted, the mother turtle would abort the nesting and return to the sea. 

This particular turtle laid 149 eggs that morning and according to records, it broke the 3-year-old record of 146 eggs. According to Alex, the island receives a turtle landing every 3 days on average. Usually done during high tide as it’s faster for them to get to the sands of the beach.

Turtle Hatchery

After the mother turtle has done her job and left, the trained staff collected the eggs carefully and moved them to the hatchery near to our camp. This fast action increases the survival rate of hatching up to 90 per cent.

Turtle eggs are delicious treat for crabs, monitor lizards and birds. That is why they need to be transported to a circular wire mesh enclosure around the nest, so these predators can’t dig the nest.

Each mesh is labelled with information such as date, number of eggs and turtle species. The eggs will hatch after 45 to 55 days. Cool fact –  temperature actually determines the gender of a hatchling? Cooler temperatures lead to a male, while a hotter environment leads to a female.

This 4-ha hatchery was setup in July 2012 by Alex at the site chosen by Sabah Wildlife Department. It was named “Taman Hadiah” which literally means Gift Garden. On average there is about 4,000 eggs being hatched every month with the species made up of 73% Green Turtle and 27% Hawksbill.

From 2013 until 2017, the hatchery had collected 20,022 Green turtle eggs and 7,464 Hawksbill turtle eggs. In March 2018, they celebrated the release of the 30,000th turtle!

I was lucky enough and happy to be able to witness the release of a few dozens baby turtles that evening. They are released at night to avoid their natural predators. Once freed, the baby turtles will head instinctly to the sea.

Another amazing fact about turtle. The baby turtles can remember their birth place and they will return even after 25 years, to navigate back to her exact birthplace to lay their own eggs!

Sadly though only 1 in 1,000 of baby turtles can make it to adulthood. The odds is really low that is why we need to protect and hatch as many turtle eggs as possible. Every egg counts.

Save our turtles – don’t eat turtle eggs!

In the state of Sabah Borneo, any person caught in possession or consuming turtle eggs is liable to fine of RM50,000 or jailed five years, or both, upon conviction. 

Due to weak enforcement, turtle egg sellers are still around and selling them in broad daylight in Sandakan town. I hope the authorities will clamp on the sellers and buyers as well. Let them face justice. This will send a strong message to the public that even buying turtle eggs is also a crime.

Finally, much respect to Alex Yee on his dedication to conservation. His contribution is immense and will be felt for generations to come. I hope more visitors will come to Libaran Island to support the turtle conservation there.

Interested to have a stay in Libaran Island? Find out more on their website

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